In Plato’s description of Atlantis, Critias mentions orichalcum — literally “mountain copper” — a metal second in preciousness only to gold but no longer known except by name. To this day its identification offers a minor mystery to historians. Was orichalcum some bright alloy of gold? Platinum? Remnants of an alien civilization that taught humans how to embed circuitry into the Acropolis? Probably not. A few years back almost forty ingots were recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of Sicily. A gold-hued alloy of copper and zinc, some experts believe these may be our last remnants of the lost metal. They’re on display at the archaeological museum of Gela.
Orichalcum is also a board game by Bruno Cathala and Johannes Goupy. It’s considerably less mysterious than its namesake.
Atlantis has fallen. Apart from being the title of a forthcoming straight-to-streaming Gerard Butler flick, that’s the pitch for Orichalcum. Homes dutifully sold to Poseidon for fair market value, the Atlanteans take to the seas to colonize a new island. What follows is a blend of tile placement, action optimization, and painstakingly resetting a card market.
For the most part, turns consist of grabbing and resolving a card from the aforementioned market. Each one is composed of two parts, formed by placing a terrain tile atop the action card itself. It’s a clever idea, creating unique pairings with each market refresh.
Unique in theory, anyway. It isn’t long before the game’s shortage of options makes the market feel like more fuss than it’s worth. There are only four actions to select from — recruiting hoplites, mining nuggets of orichalcum, building structures, and fighting monsters — and every turn concludes with the option to conduct a wild action for a nominal fee, making each pick less of a Sophie’s Choice and more of a Sophie’s Choice where you pick one kid and then pick the other kid too.
Fortunately, it’s somewhat harder to wrassle terrain into useful arrangements. This latter detail is important, as stretches of similar terrain will bestow the allegiance of titans, victory points that also offer onetime bonuses to various actions, while clusters of four dissimilar landscapes will allow the construction of a temple, another victory point, albeit one that doesn’t do anything cool and stompy. This is where Orichalcum grows a little more interesting. Victory, you see, is a race to five points. There are only three ways to pick up points, each with their own limitation: titans are cool but you can only host one at a time, temples require some careful arrangement of terrain indeed, and orichalcum ingots are made by melting together five nuggets, which stinks because those delicious nuggs are also one of three ways you pay for your extra actions.
Orichalcum has a polish problem. Not in the sense that it’s unpolished. It’s too polished. Which is possibly the most harebrained thing you’ve ever heard a person say.
The issue, though, is that its cold metallic surface has been burnished to such a shine that everything slides right off. Tough decisions. Player interaction. Basic human attention. Everything. Sure, every now and then somebody will take a card you wanted, or you’ll fail to kill a monster on your first roll, or somebody will build the structure you planned to build. When that happens, it’s so easy to slide back into your sandals that you hardly notice them getting knocked off. Did I mention there’s a second market for buildings? There is. It isn’t as interesting as the card market. There’s also rolling to kill monsters. Volcano spaces count as wild terrain for buildings, but they arrive clogged up with an attendant monster that blocks nearby construction projects and can be slain for a reward. Not that there’s any way around them; you’ll have to slay all your monsters eventually because they block you from winning. Except even the monsters are largely trivial after a few rounds. The result is a map without texture, two markets without texture, and long pauses in between isolated turns. Nothing sticks. Nothing catches. There’s no friction.
Look, I’m not opposed to multiplayer solitaire games that let everybody work on their own tableau without disruption. That’s not the issue. The issue is that the best heads-down games bind us together with at least a few strings, gossamer and tickling though they be. They give us a reason to brush elbows even if we aren’t throwing them. Shared incentives, little races, desirable offerings stolen out from under us. Orichalcum has those things, but they almost never matter. The market is shared, but its consequences are brushed off with an extra action. It’s a race, but we’re so disconnected that we’re not even running the same track.
The result isn’t bad, game-wise. It’s bad as a social experience. It’s lonesome. It even commits the sin of rendering its individual spaces as flat expanses rather than as topographies that beg to be explored and transformed. There’s never a point where you’ll nudge somebody to look at what you’ve created. There’s no admiring it, because its stretches of forest are the same as deserts are the same as marshes. You’ll never want to traverse it the way the spaces in Santa Monica or Ark Nova or Era: Medieval Age ask to be traversed. There are no clever arrangements, no breathtaking combos, no surprises. Scratch that. Build the right structures and you can take a second extra action at the end of your turn. Maybe those extra actions will cost less. Now you’re cooking with gasoline.
Except I don’t want to cook with gasoline because I don’t cook for speed. I cook for taste and texture and the joy of sharing a meal with somebody. Orichalcum wants to appeal to those of us who appreciate a solitary experience in the company of friends. Unfortunately, it snips even the faintest threads that keep us tethered to one another. The result is a game that has been polished until there’s nothing left to look at.
A complimentary copy was provided.